OpenSource, Transparency and Legal Professionals

January 30, 2009

NB: This is a self-reflective piece that started as a “Career Path” paper for Technology in the Practice of Law, a course I took in the summer of 2008. I recently earned a Master of Science, with Honors, in Information Technology & Privacy Law from The John Marshall Law School, and have decided to turn the idea into action. I talked often of openness and transparency in class, and this initial post, this declaration, is part of walking the walk. It should also be noted that this document was written prior to Barack Obama taking office. Comments are welcome, and encouraged.

Gwynne Monahan
Independent Project
Presentation Outline

Open Source, Transparency and Legal Professionals

My how things have changed. When I first pondered this idea of “professional independence” in August, there was some uneasiness and a great deal of caution. I was still convinced, perhaps delusional, that I would be able to land a full-time job doing something remotely interesting. I did not pause and give myself the opportunity to really think through the concept of “gainful employment,” and exactly what that means to me now. It used to mean a steady paycheck, health benefits, a 401(K) if I were lucky and the opportunity to devote my spare time to my first love: writing fiction. Having gone through the demoralizing process of job-hunting with no success, I have come to the realization that “gainful employment” does not mean what I thought. Having spent considerable time reflecting on the interviews I had this past summer, I have come to the realization that I must stop fitting myself to a position or a particular ideal and, instead, fit a position or particular ideal to me.

I have often framed this as needing to be continually challenged. At some point, however, challenges are conquered and it’s time to find another. Continually looking for challenges becomes exhausting, and downright frustrating. It starts to take on the air of impossibility, a mountain that will never be scaled. It’s hard to shake a defeatist attitude with that point of view. I need to change my approach, my line of thinking.

Instead of continually searching for a challenge, I must pursue a passion. And if I pursue a passion, then challenge is sure to follow. Being a very curious individual, I read a ridiculous amount and have acquired a wide-range of information. Throughout my Masters education, I have discovered that a fair amount of that information is useful, and when I’m passionate about sharing it, things start to happen. There is an active engagement of ideas, and a sense of accomplishment, whether that is providing a different perspective or introducing some new technology or communications tool.

It was with this different line of thinking that I went back and reviewed my “professional independence” declaration. Not too shabby, but given the economic climate, it’ll be tough to implement. Businesses across the board are cutting staff, cutting budgets and preparing for what many economists are predicting to be a long recession. Longer than the memories of most people, anyway. On the one hand, it seems like the perfect climate to go in and tout the benefits of open source applications. As the economy continues to wreak havoc, law firms are downsizing, or closing all together, which makes convincing them to switch to open source rather ridiculous. Previous line of thinking would have gone down the “defeatist” lane, and thrown in the towel before anything got started.

The “passion” lane, however, leads in a different direction. With law firm layoffs, that means there is an increased likelihood of solo practitioners and smaller firms. Thanks to the credit freeze, it’s hard, if not impossible, to get loans. Without loans, there is less money to use to purchase equipment, equipment lawyers working in big law firms are used to having. They’re going to need alternatives. Alternatives like

If past experience is any indication, these newly minted solo practitioners have probably never heard of, or even open source applications. And if they have, it has more than likely been under some kind of licensing or intellectual property umbrella. Helpful, but irrelevant if they are not intellectual property lawyers. What they need to know is what open source applications like are, what they can do with such applications that can also be accomplished using Microsoft Office, and how they can make do what Microsoft Office can’t. For example, there is a timer extension for so you can easily see how much time you are spending on a document. A database can be set up to record and store this information, which can then be used for billing purposes. Apparently this same thing can be done with Microsoft, but figuring it out requires learning Word, Excel and Access. Most people already know Word and Excel, but few know Access and the application is an additional expense. Not so with And, to be really geeky, it is possible that the extension and database can be integrated into other, more sophisticated, billing applications. That is for future consideration, though.

And there is a bigger picture to incorporate: the whole concept of transparency. The word has gotten quite a bit of attention lately due to the economic crisis and the recent arrest of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. Such events, coupled with the NSA wire-tapping mess, telecommunications companies tracking and throttling Internet usage unbeknown to its customers and a whole host of behind-the-scenes dealings, have outraged the public and increased the demand for greater transparency. President-elect Barrack Obama appears to be heeding those calls, inviting America to weigh in on discussions through his website, I would not be surprised if Obama’s administration ushers in an age of transparent, open source governing. That will take time, however, and can be undone with the next administration.

It is in this spirit of transparency I have come up with the following outline for a Continuing Legal Education class on open source applications and their uses for the legal profession. It must be understood that the outline consists of broad strokes, creating a sense of the big picture before drilling down into more specifics of open source applications like

I. Introduction

A. Definitions
1. Proprietary Applications
2. Open Source Applications

II. Lawyer Interest

A. Sunshine Laws

B. OpenDocumentFormat
1. Massachusetts Open Standards Initiative


A. Overview

B. Specific Applications
1. Writer
2. Calc
3. Impress
4. Base

C. Useful Extensions
1. Writer’s Tools
a. Timer Function

D. Where to Find More Information

The outline is by no means exhaustive, and it can also be adjusted to incorporate more collaborative tools, such as wikis, or communication tools like Twitter. There are numerous lawyers already using wikis and services like Twitter. Though such services are often seen as marketing tools, they can be useful for collaboration and the exchange of ideas. Lawyers often write articles, and sometimes co-author articles. It can be demonstrated that wikis are a better vehicle for such collaboration, eliminating the annoyance of exchanging countless email attachments.